One of the chief purposes of Lent is to remind us of the meaning of our own baptism, and to unite ourselves in prayer and support for those preparing for the Easter initiation sacraments. The rite for bringing new members into the Church is called The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. This rite, which virtually disappeared from use around the sixth century, was restored to the Church by mandate of the Second Vatican Council. Previously, adults were simply instructed in the faith and baptized with a simple ritual, often not celebrated in the presence of the rest of the community. The restored rite assumes more than catechism instruction and much more than the ritual of baptism with water. The restored rite is ideally celebrated over the period of one year, preferably beginning before Lent of one year and extending through Easter of the following year.
The rite is actually a sequence of periods and steps. The steps are a collection of rituals that are celebrated in behalf of the candidates for baptism and meant to express the support of the community. The first period is that of evangelization and the precatechumenate. This is a time, of no fixed duration or structure, for people to ask questions, to become acquainted with gospel values, and may even mark the very beginnings of faith. The step celebrated in this period is the formal acceptance into the order of catechumens. Here the candidates express their intention to respond to God’s call to follow the way of Christ, and the Church gladly accepts their good intentions.
There follows the period of the catechumenate, a time for the nurturing and growth of the catechumen’s faith and conversion to God. This journey toward faith and conversion is assisted during this period by celebrations of the word and by prayers of exorcism and blessing. Within this period comes the second step: election. This ritual, ideally celebrated around the first Sunday of Lent, formally ratifies the catechumens’ readiness for the sacraments. The catechumens, now called “the elect,” express publicly their will to receive the sacraments of initiation. The bishop normally leads this celebration.
The third period is that of purification and enlightenment. This would ordinarily be the season of Lent preceding the baptism of the elect. This is described as a time of reflection, intensely centered on conversion, marked by celebration of the scrutinies, which are rites for self-searching and repentance. The third step, celebrated during this period, is the liturgical rite of baptism, confirmation, and the eucharist. These sacraments of initiation are celebrated during the Easter Vigil liturgy.
The final period is called the period of postbaptismal catechesis or mystagogy. These perhaps unfamiliar words are simply meant to describe the time following the reception of the Easter sacraments of initiation. Here the newly initiated experience being fully a part of the Christian community. This would include further instruction or catechesis in various elements of the Catholic faith, and especially participation with all the faithful in the Sunday celebration of the eucharist. Ideally the newly baptized would continue to meet together periodically until the anniversary of their baptism.